Tag Archives: India

The Lusiads of Camões — Verse on the Conquering of Worlds

Luís Vaz de Camões was born in 1524 or 25, son of a ship’s captain who drowned off of Goa. He lived in Lisbon on the fringes of court writing poetry and plays, legend has it he fell in love with Catarine de Ataide (who married Vasco da Gama, the subject of the Lusiad just as she was the subject of Camões’s sonnets).

Pedro Americo, D. Catrine de Ataide, 1878

Portrait of navigator Vasco da Gama, viceroy of Portuguese parts captured in India, from the c.1565 compendium, Livro de Lisuarte de Abreu (Pierpont Morgan Library, M.525)

Exiled from the court, he joined the garrison in Ceuta (Morrocco) as a common solider, and it was there he lost his eye. He is always shown thus.

Between 1553-56 he sailed to India, took part in expeditions along the Malabar coast of India, in the Red Sea, along the African and Arabian coasts, visits Malacca and the Moluccas. In 1559 he was recalled to Goa, wrecked in the Mekong river where he lost everything but, legend tells us, the cantos of the Lusiads. He spent time in jail related to his post in Macau. Jailed again for debt. He kicks around until friends offer him passage back to Lisbon in 1570, and it is in 1572 the Lusiads are published. It is only then that ‘Camões [was] granted tiny royal pension for “the adequacy of the book he wrote on Indian matters (xxvi).”‘ It is not, I don’t think, what you might call a happy life.

Canto 1
Arms are my theme, and those matchless heroes
Who from Portugal’s far western shores
By oceans where none had ventured
Voyaged in Taprobana and beyond,
Enduring hazards and assaults
Such as drew on more than human prowess
Among far distant peoples, to proclaim
A New Age and win undying fame

Kings likewise of glorious memory
Who magnified Christ and Empire,
Bringing rain on the degenerate
Lands of Africa and Asia (1-2: 3);

As armas e os Barões assinalados
Que da Ocidental praia Lusitana
Por mares nunca de antes navegados
Passaram ainda além da Taprobana,
Em perigos e guerras esforçados
Mais do que prometia a força humana,
E entre gente remota edificaram
Novo Reino, que tanto sublimaram.

E também as memórias gloriosas
Daqueles Reis que foram dilatando
A Fé, o Império, e as terras viciosas
De África e de Ásia andaram devastando,

The whole of Os Lusiadas in Portuguese can be found here. It is written in a style heroic, celebrating the bravery and brutality of Vasco da Gama and his sailors. There is a strange invocation of Roman Gods and nymphs, an evocation of Empire that sits easier with the Portuguese project than Christianity — it seems obvious perhaps, yet I found it strange and fascinating both that the whole of it is couched in terms of Jupiter’s support of the Portuguese cause, Bacchus’s dissent and constant meddling.

Now you can watch them, risking all
In frail timbers on treacherous seas,
By routes never charted, and only
Emboldened by opposing winds;
Having explored so much of the earth
From the equator to the midnight sun.
They recharge their purpose and are drawn
To touch the very portals of the dawn

They were promised by eternal Fate
Whose high laws cannot be brokem
They should long hold sway in the seas…. (27-28:8)

«Agora vedes bem que, cometendo
O duvidoso mar num lenho leve,
Por vias nunca usadas, não temendo
de Áfrico e Noto a força, a mais s’atreve:
Que, havendo tanto já que as partes vendo
Onde o dia é comprido e onde breve,
Inclinam seu propósito e perfia
A ver os berços onde nasce o dia.

«Prometido lhe está do Fado eterno,
Cuja alta lei não pode ser quebrada,
Que tenham longos tempos o governo
Do mar que vê do Sol a roxa entrada.

Fate absolves them of everything and I love that they expect the hand of friendship wherever they go, despite their plan of conquest. This is at once a constant complaint of the lack of trust among strangers and a victorious poem of war against all unbelievers.

It is an eternal conundrum,
Unfathomable by human thought,
That those closest to God will never be
Lacking in some perfidious enemy! (71:17)
Ó segredos daquela Eternidade
A quem juízo algum não alcançou:
Que nunca falte um pérfido inimigo
Àqueles de quem foste tanto amigo!

Hilarious. Reminded me of Hugh Makesela singing ‘Vasco da Gama, he was no friend of mine‘ in Colonial Man. The other side to this whole poem, and the side to be on. But we continue.

Canto 2

In which they send prisoners out to reconnoiter — I’m not entirely sure of the wisdom of this, but I suppose they weren’t just going to run away? There seems to have been a choice among prisoners as well. Ah, the jolly life of the sea.

Even so, from among those prisoners
On board, sentenced for gross crimes
So their lives could be hazarded
In predicaments such as these,
He sent two of the cleverest, trained
To spy on the city and defences
Of the resourceful Muslims, and to greet
The famous Christian he so longed to meet. (7:26)
E de alguns que trazia, condenados
Por culpas e por feitos vergonhosos,
Por que pudessem ser aventurados
Em casos desta sorte duvidosos,
Manda dous mais sagazes, ensaiados,
Por que notem dos Mouros enganosos
A cidade e poder, e por que vejam
Os Cristãos, que só tanto ver desejam.

Venus worries for them, she intercedes with Jove, he lists the many victories they will have (there are many such stomach-turning lists).

Even the tough, formidable Turks
You will see consistently routed;
The independent kings of India
Will be subject to Portugal,
Bringing, when all falls under his command,
A better dispensation to that land (46:34)

‘You will see the famous Red Sea
Turning yellow from sheer fright; (49:34)

Os Turcos belacíssimos e duros
Deles sempre vereis desbaratados;
Os Reis da Índia, livres e seguros,
Vereis ao Rei potente sojugados,
E por eles, de tudo enfim senhores,
Serão dadas na terra leis milhores.

«E vereis o Mar Roxo, tão famoso,
Tornar-se-lhe amarelo, de enfiado;

They will take Ormuz, Diu

‘Goa, you will see, seized from the Muslims
And come in the fullness of time to be
Queen of the Orient, raised up
By the triumphs of her conquerors.
From that proud, noble eminence,
They will rule with an iron fist
Idol-worshiping Hindus, and everyone
Throughout that land with thoughts of rebellion (51:35)
«Goa vereis aos Mouros ser tomada,
A qual virá despois a ser senhora
De todo o Oriente, e sublimada
Cos triunfos da gente vencedora.
Ali, soberba, altiva e exalçada,
Ao Gentio que os Ídolos adora
Duro freio porá, e a toda a terra
Que cuidar de fazer aos vossos guerra.

They will take the fortress of Cannanore, Calicut, Cochin

‘As the very ocean boils with the fires
Ignited by your people, Battling
Taking both Hindu and Muslim captive,
Subduing the different nations

Until every sea-way is subservient (54:35)
«Como vereis o mar fervendo aceso
Cos incêndios dos vossos, pelejando,
Levando o Idololatra e o Mouro preso,
De nações diferentes triunfando;

Ser-lhe-á todo o Oceano obediente.

Canto 3

In which da Gama gives a brief history of Portugal, ‘noble Iberia, The head, as it were, of all Europe’ (17: 51) to a Muslim Sultan. That doesn’t stop him from insulting the moors often and deeply of course, though he mentions that among them were Amazons (44:56). That’s cool.

Canto 4

In which Manuel the king of Portugal has a dream…

‘I am the famous Ganges whose waters
Have their source in the earthly paradise;
This other is the Indus, which springs
In this mountain which you behold.
We shall cost you unremitting war,
But perservering, you will become
Peerless in victory, knowing no defeat,
Conquering as many peoples as you meet.’ (74:91)

The king summoned the lords to council
To tell of the figures of his dream;
The words spoken by the venerable saint
Were a great wonder to them all.
They resolved at once to equip
A fleet and an intrepid crew,
Commissioned to plough the remotest seas
To explore new regions, make discoveries. (76:92)

«Eu sou o ilustre Ganges, que na terra
Celeste tenho o berço verdadeiro;
Estoutro é o Indo, Rei que, nesta serra
Que vês, seu nascimento tem primeiro.
Custar-t’ -emos contudo dura guerra;
Mas, insistindo tu, por derradeiro,
Com não vistas vitórias, sem receio
A quantas gentes vês porás o freio.»

«Chama o Rei os senhores a conselho
E propõe-lhe as figuras da visão;
As palavras lhe diz do santo velho,
Que a todos foram grande admiração.
Determinam o náutico aparelho,
Pera que, com sublime coração,
Vá a gente que mandar cortando os mares
A buscar novos climas, novos ares.

They asked for it you see.

But then there is an odd counterpoint, an old man calling out to them as they depart from Belem

–‘O pride of power! O futile lust
For that vanity known as fame!
That hollow conceit which puffs itself up
And which popular cant calls honour!
What punishment, what poetic justice,
You exact on sou;s that pursue you!
To what deaths, what miseries you condemn
Your heroes! What pains you inflict on them!

‘You wreck all peace of soul and body,
You promote separation and adultery;
Subtley, manifestly, you consume
The wealth of kingdoms and empires!
They call distinction, they call honour
What deserves ridicule and contempt;
They talk of glory and eternal fame,
And men are driven frantic by a name!

‘To what new catastrophes do you plan
To drag this kingdom and tehse people?
What perils, what deaths have you in store
Under what magniloquent title?
What visions of kingdoms and gold-mines
Will you guide them to infallibly?
What fame do you promise them? What stories?
What conquests and processions? What glories? (95-97:96)
***
‘Already in this vainglorious business
Delusions are possessing you,
Already ferocity and brute force
Are labelled strength and valour,
The heresy “Long live Death!” is already
Current among you, when life should always
be cherished, As Christ in times gone by
Who gave us life was yet afraid to die. (99:96)
***
‘The devil take the man who first put
Dry wood on the waves with a sail! (102: 97)

– «Ó glória de mandar, ó vã cobiça
Desta vaidade a quem chamamos Fama!
Ó fraudulento gosto, que se atiça
Cũa aura popular, que honra se chama!
Que castigo tamanho e que justiça
Fazes no peito vão que muito te ama!
Que mortes, que perigos, que tormentas,
Que crueldades neles experimentas!

«Dura inquietação d’alma e da vida
Fonte de desemparos e adultérios,
Sagaz consumidora conhecida
De fazendas, de reinos e de impérios!
Chamam-te ilustre, chamam-te subida,
Sendo dina de infames vitupérios;
Chamam-te Fama e Glória soberana,
Nomes com quem se o povo néscio engana!

«A que novos desastres determinas
De levar estes Reinos e esta gente?
Que perigos, que mortes lhe destinas,
Debaixo dalgum nome preminente?
Que promessas de reinos e de minas
D’ ouro, que lhe farás tão facilmente?
Que famas lhe prometerás? Que histórias?
Que triunfos? Que palmas? Que vitórias?

***

«Já que nesta gostosa vaïdade
Tanto enlevas a leve fantasia,
Já que à bruta crueza e feridade
Puseste nome, esforço e valentia,
Já que prezas em tanta quantidade
O desprezo da vida, que devia
De ser sempre estimada, pois que já
Temeu tanto perdê-la Quem a dá:

***

«Oh, maldito o primeiro que, no mundo,
Nas ondas vela pôs em seco lenho!

And they just sail away as he speaks. But I wondered if that were not perhaps exactly what Camões himself thought, maybe that is the heart of this epic poem, this old man railing against violence and pride. Against the colonial project. There are echoes of this throughout.

Canto 5

He describes Madeira — known for its great forests. Soon to be cut down and forgotten. The Numidian desert of the Berber people, a land where ostriches digest iron in their stomachs! The Senegal river, Asinarus that they have rechristened Cape Verde. The Canary Islands, once called the Fortunate Isles. It is a map, this poem. They pass Jalof province, Mandingo…

Off the River Niger, we distinctly heard
Breakers pounding on beaches that are ours
***

There the mighty kingdom of the Congo
Has been brought by us to faith in Christ,
Where the Zaire flows, immense and brimming,
A river never seen by the ancients.
From this open sea I looked my last
At the constellations of the north.
For we had now crossed the burning line
Which marks division in the earth’s design (12-13:100)
O grande rio, onde batendo soa
O mar nas praias notas, que ali temos,
***

«Ali o mui grande reino está de Congo,
Por nós já convertido à fé de Cristo,
Por onde o Zaire passa, claro e longo,
Rio pelo antigos nunca visto.
Por este largo mar, enfim, me alongo
Do conhecido Pólo de Calisto,
Tendo o término ardente já passado
Onde o meio do Mundo é limitado.

This…oh man, there is so much in here isn’t there. The view of the other, the incomparable arrogance, the initimitable violence, the begginings of this trade in beads and baubles founded on a lack of respect for a culture that cares not for forks or gold.

I saw a stranger with a black skin
They had captured, making his sweet harvest
Of honey from the wild bees in the forest.

He looked thunderstruck, like a man
Never placed in such an extreme;
He could not understand us, nor we him
Who seemed wilder than Polyphemus.
I began by showing him pure gold
The supreme metal of civilisation,
Then fine silverware and hot condiment:
Nothing stirred in the brute the least excitement.

I arranged to show him simpler things:
Tiny beads of transparent crystal,
Some little jingling bells and rattles,
A red bonnet of a pleasing colour;
I saw at once from nods and gestures
That these had made him very happy.
I freed him and let him take his pillage,
Small as it was, to his nearby village.

The next day his fellows, all of them
Naked, and blacker than seemed possible,
Trooped down the rugged hillside paths
Hoping for what their friend had obtained.
They were so gentle and well-disposed (27-30:103)

Vejo um estranho vir, de pele preta,
Que tomaram per força, enquanto apanha
De mel os doces favos na montanha.

«Torvado vem na vista, como aquele
Que não se vira nunca em tal extremo;
Nem ele entende a nós, nem nós a ele,
Selvagem mais que o bruto Polifemo.
Começo-lhe a mostrar da rica pele
De Colcos o gentil metal supremo,
A prata fina, a quente especiaria:
A nada disto o bruto se movia.

«Mando mostrar-lhe peças mais somenos:
Contas de cristalino transparente,
Alguns soantes cascavéis pequenos,
Um barrete vermelho, cor contente;
Vi logo, por sinais e por acenos,
Que com isto se alegra grandemente.
Mando-o soltar com tudo e assi caminha
Pera a povoação, que perto tinha.

«Mas, logo ao outro dia, seus parceiros,
Todos nus e da cor da escura treva,
Decendo pelos ásperos outeiros,
As peças vêm buscar que estoutro leva.
Domésticos já tanto e companheiros

They continue on, still on. And then the Cape of Storms rises up embodied before them, grotesque, and again all the contradictions in this colonial project come rising to the surface with him.

‘Because you have descrated nature’s
Secrets and the mysteries of the deep
Where no human, however noble
Or immortal his worth, should trespass
Hear from me now what retribution
Fate presrcibes for your insolence,
Whether ocean-borne, or along the shores
You will subjegaute with your dreadful wars

‘No matter how many vessels attempt
The audacious passage you are plotting
My cape will be implacably hostile
With gales beyond any you have encountered (42-3:106)

«Pois vens ver os segredos escondidos
Da natureza e do húmido elemento,
A nenhum grande humano concedidos
De nobre ou de imortal merecimento,
Ouve os danos de mi que apercebidos
Estão a teu sobejo atrevimento,
Por todo o largo mar e pola terra
Que inda hás-de sojugar com dura guerra.

«Sabe que quantas naus esta viagem
Que tu fazes, fizerem, de atrevidas,
Inimiga terão esta paragem,
Com ventos e tormentas desmedidas;

The spirit describes the Portuguese need to atone for ‘his bloody crimes, the massacre | Of Kilwa, the leveling of Mombasa (45:107).

Unexpected. These are celebrated later on but only after this first mention, the cost of what they are doing, its criminal aspect. The more I look at the poem the more I am intrigued by this very slender thread of self-knowledge of crimes inflicted against man and earth.

Canto 6

Sail on and sail on. Past a succession of sultans who lie and cheat the Portuguese until they come to Mozambique, where finally the Sultan fulfills his promise to give them guides. There is a meeting of the gods under the sea, summoned by Triton. And I love this passage

The hairs of his beard and the hair
Falling from his head to his shoulders
Were all one mass of mud, and visibly
Had never been touched by a comb;
Each dangling dreadlock was a cluster
Of gleaming, blue-black mussels.
On his head by way of coronet, he wore
The biggest lonbster-shell you ever saw.

His body was naked, even his genitals
So as not to impede his swimming,
But tiny creatures of the sea
Crawled over him by the hundreds;
(17:122)

Os cabelos da barba e os que decem
Da cabeça nos ombros, todos eram
Uns limos prenhes d’ água, e bem parecem
Que nunca brando pêntem conheceram.
Nas pontas pendurados não falecem
Os negros mexilhões, que ali se geram.
Na cabeça, por gorra, tinha posta
Ũa mui grande casca de lagosta.

O corpo nu, e os membros genitais,
Por não ter ao nadar impedimento,
Mas porém de pequenos animais
Do mar todos cobertos, cento e cento:

They are becalmed, and the strangest tale told of Magrico, in which John of Gaunt who has been allied with King Joao summons twelve Portuguese knights to represent the ladies in a joust for their honour and the knights win of course…I suppose it is just to tie Portugal closer to their English allies, but so curious.

Canto 7 — A last listing of Portuguese possessions after an excoriation of the infighting between Christians — the Reformation I imagination, he is particularly upset at the Germans. Canto 8, the treachery of the Muslims. Chapter 9 finally they head home, with reflections on all they had won — lands mapped, men and spices pillaged and plundered.

He sailed by the south coast, reflecting
He had laboured in vain for a treaty
Of friendship with the Hindu king,
To guarantee peace and commerce;
But at least those lands stretching
To the dawn were now known to the world,
And at long last his men were homeward bound
With proofs on board of the India he had found.

For he had some Malabaris siezed
From those dispatched by the Samorin
When he returned the imprisoned factors;
He had hot peppers he had purchased;
There was mace from the Banda Islands;
Then nutmeg and black cloves, pride
Of the new-found Moluccas, and cinammon,
the wealth, the fame, the beauty of Ceylon. (13-14:179)

Parte-se costa abaxo, porque entende
Que em vão co Rei gentio trabalhava
Em querer dele paz, a qual pretende
Por firmar o comércio que tratava;
Mas como aquela terra, que se estende
Pela Aurora, sabida já deixava,
Com estas novas torna à pátria cara,
Certos sinais levando do que achara.

Leva alguns Malabares, que tomou
Per força, dos que o Samorim mandara
Quando os presos feitores lhe tornou;
Leva pimenta ardente, que comprara;
A seca flor de Banda não ficou;
A noz e o negro cravo, que faz clara
A nova ilha Maluco, co a canela
Com que Ceilão é rica, ilustre e bela.

And then Venus, who owns many of these islands, prepares one for these heroes. She fills it with nymphs who are theirs for the taking.

There she intended the sea nymphs
Should wait upon the mighty heroes
–All of them lovely beyond compare,
***
So with redoubled zeal, each would endeavour
To please her beloved mariner, whoever…(22: 181)

But make way, you steep, cerulean waves
For look, Venus brings the remedy,
In those white, billowing sails
Scudding swiftly over Neptune’s waters;
Now ardent loving can assuage
Female passion… (49: 186)

Ali quer que as aquáticas donzelas
Esperem os fortíssimos barões
(Todas as que têm título de belas,
***
Pera com mais vontade trabalharem
De contentar a quem se afeiçoarem.

Dai lugar, altas e cerúleas ondas,
Que, vedes, Vénus traz a medicina,
Mostrando as brancas velas e redondas,
Que vêm por cima da água Neptunina.
Pera que tu recíproco respondas,
Ardente Amor, à flama feminina,

the sailors land and go chasing their nymphs through the forest — Tethys takes da Gama to the mountain to show him ‘the still-unmapped continents’ and ‘seas unsailed’ and ‘There they passed the long day | In sweet games and continuous pleasure.’ It seems to me all one elaborate metaphor of rape that he explains thus:

For the ocean nymphs in all their beauty,
Tethys, and the magic painted island,
Are nothing more than those delghtful
Honours, which make our lives sublime.
Those glorious moments of pre-eminence (89:194)
Que as Ninfas do Oceano, tão fermosas,
Tétis e a Ilha angélica pintada,
Outra cousa não é que as deleitosas
Honras que a vida fazem sublimada.
Aquelas preminências gloriosas,

It makes me feel sick really, this treating as parable what these European sailors in reality took as divine right and with violence wherever they landed.

Canto 10

This canto contains the great summation of death and destruction the Portuguese will wreck upon the world from the lips of Venus. I’ve just pulled some of the highlights out, more feeling sick:

The goddess sang that from the Tagus,
Over the seas da Gama had opened,
Would come fleets to conquer all the coast
Where the Indian Ocean sighs;
Those Hindu Kings who did not bow
Their necks to the yoke would incite
The wrath of an implacable enemy,
Their choice to yield or, on an instant, die (10:199)

Pacheco will not only hold the fords,
But burn towns, houses, and temples;
Inflamed with anger, watching his cities
One by one laid low, that dog
Will force his men, reckless of life,
To attack both passages at once, (16:200)

Together, by the power of arms,
They will castigate fertile Kilwa,
Driving out its perfidious princeling
To impose a loyal and humane King

‘Mombasa too, furnished with such
Palaces and sumptuous houses,
Will be laid waste with iron and fire,
In payment for its former treachery
(26-27:202)

But it is Emir Hussein’s grappled fleet
Bears the brunt of the avenger’s anger,
As arms and legs swim in the bay
Without the bodies they belonged to;
Bolts of fire will make manifest
The passionate victors’ blind fury (36:204)

But what great light’“ do I see breaking,’
Sang the nymph and in a higher strain,
‘Where the seas of Malindi flow crimson
With the blood of Lamu, Oja, and Brava? (39:205)

‘That light, too, is from Persian Ormuz
From the fires and the gleaming arms
Of Albuquerque as he rebukes them
For scorning his light, honourable yoke. (40:205)

‘Not all that land’s mountains of salt
Can preserve from corruption the corpses
Littering the beaches, choking the seas
Of Gerum, Muscat, and Al Quraiyat,
Till, by the strength of his arm, they learn
To bow the neck as he compels
That grim realm to yield, without dispute,
Pearls from Bahrain as their annual tribute. (41:205)

Renowned, opulent Malacca!
For all your arrows tipped with poison,
The curved daggers you bear as arms,
Amorous Malays and valiant Javanese
All will be subject to the Portuguese (44:205)

Having cleared India of enemies
He will take up the viceroy’s sceptre

For all fear him and none complain,
Except Bhatkal, which brings on itself
The pains Beadala already suffered;
Corpses will strew the streets, and shells burst
As fire and thundering cannon do their worst.(66:210)

Cantava a bela Deusa que viriam
Do Tejo, pelo mar que o Gama abrira,
Armadas que as ribeiras venceriam
Por onde o Oceano Índico suspira;
E que os Gentios Reis que não dariam
A cerviz sua ao jugo, o ferro e ira
Provariam do braço duro e forte,
Até render-se a ele ou logo à morte.

Já não defenderá sòmente os passos,
Mas queimar-lhe-á lugares, templos, casas;
Aceso de ira, o Cão, não vendo lassos
Aqueles que as cidades fazem rasas,
Fará que os seus, de vida pouco escassos,
Cometam o Pacheco, que tem asas,

A Quíloa fértil, áspero castigo,
Fazendo nela Rei leal e humano,
Deitado fora o pérfido tirano.

«Também farão Mombaça, que se arreia
De casas sumptuosas e edifícios,
Co ferro e fogo seu queimada e feia,
Em pago dos passados malefícios.

«Mas a de Mir Hocém, que, abalroando,
A fúria esperará dos vingadores,
Verá braços e pernas ir nadando
Sem corpos, pelo mar, de seus senhores.
Raios de fogo irão representando,
No cego ardor, os bravos domadores.

«Mas oh, que luz tamanha que abrir sinto
(Dizia a Ninfa, e a voz alevantava)
Lá no mar de Melinde, em sangue tinto
Das cidades de Lamo, de Oja e Brava,

«Esta luz é do fogo e das luzentes
Armas com que Albuquerque irá amansando
De Ormuz os Párseos, por seu mal valentes,
Que refusam o jugo honroso e brando.

«Ali do sal os montes não defendem
De corrupção os corpos no combate,
Que mortos pela praia e mar se estendem
De Gerum, de Mazcate e Calaiate;
Até que à força só de braço aprendem
A abaxar a cerviz, onde se lhe ate
Obrigação de dar o reino inico
Das perlas de Barém tributo rico.

Opulenta Malaca nomeada.
As setas venenosas que fizeste,
Os crises com que já te vejo armada,
Malaios namorados, Jaus valentes,
Todos farás ao Luso obedientes.»

«Tendo assi limpa a Índia dos imigos,
Virá despois com ceptro a governá-la
Sem que ache resistência nem perigos,
Que todos tremem dele e nenhum fala.
Só quis provar os ásperos castigos
Baticalá, que vira já Beadala.
De sangue e corpos mortos ficou cheia
E de fogo e trovões desfeita e feia.

A reminder that in it all, it is the women who are always promised as plunder.

This was not the crime of incest
Nor the violent abuse of a virgin,
Still less of hidden adultery
For this was a slave, anyone’s woman. (47:206)

All these heroes, and others worthy
In different ways of fame and esteem,
Performing great feats in war
Will taste this island’s pleasures,
Their sharp keels cutting the waves
Under triumphant banners, to find
These lovely nymphs (73:211)

Não será a culpa abominoso incesto
Nem violento estupro em virgem pura,
Nem menos adultério desonesto,
Mas cũa escrava vil, lasciva e escura,

«Estes e outros Barões, por várias partes,
Dinos todos de fama e maravilha,
Fazendo-se na terra bravos Martes,
Virão lograr os gostos desta Ilha,
Varrendo triunfantes estandartes
Pelas ondas que corta a aguda quilha;
E acharão estas Ninfas …

And then she bids Portugal look West, not just East. Don’t, you say. Don’t. But of course they did. This is the monument in Belem that marks where all of these conquerors set out with their swords. Hardly surprising it was built under the dictator Salazar, and rises above a great cartographic rose given them by the apartheid state of South Africa.

Lisbon

Tories Out: Manchester 2017

It’s been a full-on few days of action hosted by the People’s Assembly, as it should be with the Tories busy sticking knives into each other at their annual party conference as people die from their benefit cuts, sanctions, mental health cuts, NHS cuts, housing sell off and etc. That’s what my sign would have said — or some snappier version of that — had I made one. Danielle and I did a lot, though not even close to all.

Saturday night? The Dancehouse, to see much-loved Maxine Peake (OMG Maxine Peake!) and Mark Serwotka (OMG Mark Serwotka! How much do I want to be able to join PCS? Let me count the ways…), to love for the first time comedian Barbara Nice (OMG Barbara Nice!).

People's Assembly Saturday Night Live

Sunday was the protest of the Tory conference proper. It’s kind of funny, remembering back to the first time I ever visited Manchester, on a bus up from South London to protest Tory Party Conference in 2011. I confess I was a bit unimpressed with everything but the canals and the Peak of Peveril Pub — but I was here. Doesn’t feel it could possibly have been as long as 6 years ago. We could get closer to conference then, but they are still using those silver walls. 2011:

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The anti-Brexit contingent, and ‘Boris’ on a unicorn singing busily, 2016:

Protesting Tories: Manchester 2017

We headed down Castlefields way, heard Mark Serwotka again (OMG Mark Serwotka again!) speak by chance. Then we ran into Jon and the next few speakers were yawny in the way lefty men of a certain generation can be, so we took a short break for art.

Alongside us in the Museum of Science and Industry was Nikhil Chopra in the second half of his 48-hour performance art piece, performed in front of one of the engines built in Manchester, but sent to India and used during the partition. This ink drawing, a re-imagining of passage. This sleeping and camping and being in public for 48 hours — it is what refugees undergo, isn’t it, part of the horror wrapped up in horrors of this thing, being a refugee. Always in public. Always moving. Always somewhere you don’t belong. And it challenged me in watching it, the shame of being comfortable in the face of this discomfort, in the memory of this tragedy. I lowered my eyes to give privacy to this figure on the stage, then took a picture to remember the provocative nature of this intervention because after all it is ‘art’, it is a gift and a challenge thrown at us by someone who is also not here under duress. A challenge I don’t know quite how to live up to, but I hope to. Through my work around homelessness perhaps, through struggle. I don’t know if that is enough.

Nikhil Chopra

That left us pensive, subdued, strange to go back out into a crowd. But it fit. As in all damn marches we stood and we stood and we waited and we waited. I didn’t get many pictures, but a few. The highlights were absolutely the drums, I enjoyed myself, and then…we left them behind.

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It was all right, the march. They always are.

And then we had to find food and drink and wait and wait, because we had been promised Captain Ska and Lokey, and finally they were on and finally we danced. For me this was…amazing. The power and passion and incredible words and beats. Damn.

Amazing night.

I hurt the next morning. First time exercising since holiday, then a march and then dancing? Shit.

Still, I went to work. And then in the evening off to Manchester Cathedral to see John McDonnell speak in conversation with Gary Younge. Because I promised Danielle. To be honest, were it just me, I would have headed straight for bed with some Horlicks. But I went. And I was glad.

First we had some workers… From the strikers at McDonalds! so amazing, I remember my minimum wage fast food /Kmart days, I know just how amazing these folks are for carrying off a strike.

Protesting Tories, Manchester 2017

RMT! Strike across the North East for passenger safety!

Protesting Tories, Manchester 2017

Careworkers! She almost had me in tears.

Protesting Tories, Manchester 2017

Communications union — our postal workers! Anxiously awaiting ballot results when he spoke, but today we know the vote is to strike.

Protesting Tories, Manchester 2017

And then, John McDonnell!

Protesting Tories, Manchester 2017

I’m sad Gary Younge didn’t get to make a speech too. But ah well, McDonnell said Labour was in full support of the workers, they would re-nationalise the trains and the post, they would fully fund the NHS and support careworkers, they would implement the living wage. I never thought, to be honest, I’d ever hear anyone in a position like that of shadow vice-chancellor ever say such things. It solved all the problems expressed earlier in one sentence.

Last time I saw him speak was in 2011 (the parallels between 2011 and 2017 are only now striking me), at the People’s Assembly in Brixton that we organised as Lambeth SOS. He was a little less formal then, but sounded just the same.

John McDonnell

I jotted down a few notes, some sound bites and I don’t even care because they were brilliant, all in response to some really good questions.I can’t swear any of these are exact quotes, so don’t quote me.

We’re not just a party we’re a movement again … if owned by the people change becomes unstoppable…

(I am a bit skeptical about whether the old left can deal with democracy and youth and people of colour and women, but, you know, I have hope).

This is not a free market but a rigged market of the 1%.

We need to wipe out UKIP.

In response to a good question about why this change is so damn long in coming and so resisted (someone yelled out Tony Blair and we all laughed because we knew it was true), he brought it on with Gramsci — the hegemonic nature of neoliberalism (also true).

Never again should we pay for their crisis.

Education is a gift from one generation to another, not a commodity.

Then he went on about a new education service, starting with sure start, a new approach that pays teachers but also respects them, support for apprenticeships, scrap tuition fees, EMA returned, debt forgiven, support for lifelong education.

And the end? I was wondering when this would come up — the focus on climate change, on developing the economy through green tech owned by workers cooperatives, on decarbonising the economy,  ending fracking. It was like the Hallelujah chorus.

A brilliant night. A night of hope. We need those, I feel privileged to have enjoyed one because it has been a very long time…

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Reading Vandana Shiva for the first time

Vandana Shiva - Making Peace With the EarthVandana Shiva is pretty amazing. She makes a radical reframing of the environmental and social justice problems we face feel effortless. You can tell she’s been talking about this a while.

The struggle of a life.

The cover looks a little hippy of course, reading it on the train I imagine few people knew that the first chapter sub-title was something like ‘Eco-Apartheid as War’. I keep trying to give up my binaries, but the simplicity and clarity of this war is good for struggle, for knowing what you are fighting for:

There are two different paradigms for, and approaches to, the green economy. One is the corporate-centered green economy which means:

(a) Green Washing – one has just to look at the achievements of Shell and Chevron on how they are “green”

(b) Bringing nature into markets and the world of commodification. This includes privatisation of the earth’s resources, i.e., patenting seeds, biodiversity and life forms, and commodifying nature….(15)

Commodification and privatisation are based and promoted on the flawed belief that price equals value…

The second paradigm of the green economy is earth-centred and people-centred. the resources of the earth vital to life — biodiversity, water, air — are a commons for the common good for all, and a green economy is based on a recovery of the commons and the intrinsic value of the earth and all her species. (17)

I didn’t need the schooling on all the death-dealing and life-destroying actions of corporations in India to agree with that, but I did need to know more about what is actually happening — what other basis can we build solidarity in struggle upon? There is much here requiring tears and rage, and so much struggle to support and learn from. In these stories from India you can see that it is a war — that is often hidden from us here in the U.S., particularly those of us in cities already far removed from the earth and how we are killing it by siphoning off and centralising all of its resources.

Since corporate freedom is based on extinguishing citizen freedom, the enlargement of “free-market democracy” becomes a war against Earth Democracy.

Since the rules of free-markets and free trade aim at disenfranchising citizens and communities of their resources and rights, people resist them. The way against people is carried to the next level with the militarisation of society and criminalisation of activists and movements. (21)

Through their struggle against this, they are blazing the way forward for all of us and we need to not just challenge any attempt to criminalise it, but support and learn from it.

One of the key things I think is this:

LAND IS LIFE. It is the basis of livelihoods for peasants and indigenous people across the third world, and is also becoming the most vital asset in the global economy… Land, for most people in the world, is people’s identity, it is the ground of culture and economy. (30)

This attachment, love, need for land and home that goes far beyond sale price is something many academics (planners, capitalists) don’t understand. This is something I am so infuriated and also fascinated by — a little more than Shiva is. But of course competing understandings of land and value and their rootedness in histories and capitalism are needed to understand the present conflict and so they are here scattered through the book. Like this:

In India, land-grab is facilitated by a toxic mixture of the colonial Land Acquisition Act of 1894, the deregulation of investment and commerce through neoliberal policies, and the emergence of the rule of uncontrolled greed and exploitation. The World Bank has worked for many years to commodify land… (30-31)

This fundamental fact that almost no one publishing articles and books and displacing people seems to understand at all:

Money cannot compensate for the alienation of land. (31)

It goes far back, this idea that land is to be used to generate wealth — this is an amazing quote from Puritan settler of North America John Winthrop:

Natives in New England, they enclose no land, neither have they any settled habitation, nor any tame cattle to improve the land soe have no other but a Natural Right to those countries. Soe as if we leave them sufficient for their use, we may lawfully take the rest. (113)

That’s it in a nutshell really. Then there’s the East India Company, looking at land and its resources only for profit and conquest:

As Stebbing reported in 1805, a dispatch was received from the Court of Directors of the East India Company enquiring to what extent the King’s Navy might, in view of the growing deficiency of oak in England, depend on a permanent supply of teak timber from Malabar. Thus, the first real interest aroused in the forests of India originated from the colonial centre and the cause was the same as that which had kept forestry in the forefront of England through three centuries — the safety of the Empire, which depended upon its “wooden walls” — its supremacy at sea. When the British started exploiting Indian timber for military purposes, they did so rapaciously… (116)

She looks at ideas of value, where they come from:

As the ‘trade’ metaphor has come to replace the metaphor of ‘home’, economic value itself has undergone a shift. Value, which means ‘worth’, is redefined as ‘exchange and trade’, so unless somethings is traded it has no economic value…The ‘trade’ metaphor has also rendered nature’s economy valueless; the marginalisation of both women’s work and nature’s work are linked to how ‘home’ is now perceived as a place where nothing of economic value is produced.

This shift in the understanding of economic value is central to the ecological crisis and is reflected in the change in the meaning of the term ‘resource’. ‘Resource’ originally implied life…With the advent of industrialization and colonialism, however, a conceptual break  occurred. ‘Natural resources’ became those elements of nature which were required as inputs for industrial production and colonial trade.

The ways that this continues on into our worldview today:

Planners do not see our rivers as rivers of life, they see them as 20,000 megawatts of hydro-power. (92)

The ways this shifts everything:

World Bank loan conditionalities have many paradigm shifts built into them — the shift from “water for life” to “water for profits”; from “water democracy” to “water apartheid”; from “some for all” to “all for some”. (84)

The ways that this has shifted through the globalisation of capital and changing nature of corporations and profit-making is here as well, along with it’s impact on local and state sovereignty (things that most Americans never have to worry about, even as they are shifting these relationships around the world):

The Gopalpur steel plant is a product not of the “development” era, but of the globalisation era. Globalisation demands that local communities sacrifice their lives and livelihoods for corporate profit, development demanded that local communities give up their claim to resources and their sovereignty for national sovereignty. Globalisation demands that local communities and the country should both give up their sovereign rights for the benefit of global free trade. (40)

The companies making profits on land are very familiar:

Morgan Stanley purchased 40,000 ha. of farmland in Ukraine, and Goldman Sachs took over the Chinese poultry and meat industry in September 2008. Blackrock has set up a $200 million agricultural hedge fund, of which $30 million will acquire farmland. (157)

Their speculation in food is causing famine, and if you needed more than that, there’s a whole range of other evil and horrible things happening. There’s a whole lot I didn’t really know about GMOs about biofuels (instinctively you feel they must be better than oil, but think again).

At least 30 per cent of the global food price rise in 2008 was due to biofuels… (163)

On GMOs

the term ” high yielding varieties” is a misnomer because it implies that the new seeds are high yielding in and of themselves. The distinguishing feature of the new seeds, however, is that they are highly receptive to certain key inputs such as fertilisers and irrigation. Palmer therefore suggested the term “high responsive varieties” (HRV) be used instead. (141)

Genetic engineering has failed as a tool to control and has instead created super pests and super weeds, because it is based on a violence that ruptures the resilience and metabolism of the plant and introduces genes for producing or tolerating higher doses of toxins.  (148)

The peaceful coexistence of GMOs and conventional crops is a myth: environmental contamination via cross-pollination, which poses a serious threat to biodiversity, is unavoidable. (186)

On industrial production:

Overall, in energy terms, industrial agriculture is a negative energy system, using ten units of input to produce one unit of output. Industrial agriculture in the US uses 380 times more energy per ha. to produce rice than a traditional farm in the Philippines…(142)

On fertilisers, and the violence of industrial agriculture:

Fertilisers come from explosives factories. In recent years, in Oklahoma and Afghanistan, in Mumbai and Oslo, explosives factories were retooled to make fertiliser bombs. (148)

These are the fertilisers required to grow Monsanto’s crops, also required are pesticides. The violence there, apart from long terms damage to farmers and the planet and everything in the earth and water and air:

The pesticides which had created debt also became the source for ending indebted lives. Those who survive suicide in Punjab are dying of cancer. (149)

A farmer’s organisation presented information on 2,860 farmer suicides at public hearing on 8 September, 2006

All this when traditional and organic farming almost doubles the carbon sequestration efficiency, uses a tenth of the water. All this despite the reality that when we step outside the warped logics of capital, we know what’s what:

The solutions for the climate crisis, the food crisis, or the water crisis are the same: biodiversity-based organic farming systems. (154)

It is, as so many have explored, claimed, stated, based on diversity, interconnectedness, networks.

As the Knowledge Manifesto of the International Commission on the Future of Food and Agriculture states, the following principles are now generally accepted by the scientific community: (a) living and non-living systems are all dynamically interconnected, with the consequence that any change in one element will necessarily lead to not fully predictable changes in other parts of the network; (b) variability is the basis of change and adaptation while its absence leads inevitably to death; (c) living systems actively change the environment and are changed by it in a reciprocal way. (190)

Above all this is a book of struggle, of movements fighting back and learning from them what needs to be part of this struggle:

An ecological and feminist agenda for trade needs to be evolved based on the ecological limits and social criteria that economic activity must adhere to, if it is to respect the environmental principle pf sustainability and the ethical principle of justice. This requires that the full ecological and social costs of economic activity and trade be made visible and taken into account. Globalisation that erases ecological and social costs is inconsistent with the need to minimise environmental destruction and human suffering. Localisation – based on stronger democratic decision-making at local levels, building up to national and global levels — is an imperative for conservation as well as democracy. (257)

It holds the voices of different groups asserting different kinds of knowledges and ways of being on the earth that we must now look to for the future:

We, the forest people of the world–living in the woods, surviving on the fruits and crops, farming on the jhoom land, re-cultivating the forst land, roaming around with our herds — have occupied this land since ages. We announce loudly, in unity and solidarity, let there be no doubt on the future: we are the forests and forests are us, and our existence is mutually dependent. The crisis faced by our forests and environment today will only intensify without us.
–Excerpt from the Declaration of Nation Forum for Forest people and Forest Workers (69)

The need for new structures

Self-rule of communities is the basis for indigenous self-determination, for sustainable agriculture, and for democratic pluralism. (27)

I do love how Vandana Shiva wraps it all up (something I always struggle with). I know things are always messy, but I think in a struggle like this this is the kind of clarity most useful:

Humanity stands at a precipice. We have to make a choice. Will we continue to obey the market laws of corporate greed or Gaia’s laws for maintenance of the earth’s ecosystems and the diversity of her beings? The laws for maximising corporate profits are based on:

  1. Privatising the earth
  2. Enclosing the commons
  3. Externalising the costs of ecological destruction
  4. Creating corporate economies of death and destriction
  5. Destroying democracy
  6. Destroying cultural  diversity

The laws for protecting the rights of Mother Earth are based on:

  1. respecting the integrity of the earth’s ecosystems and ecological processe
  2. Recovery of the commons
  3. Internalising ecological costs
  4. Creating living economies
  5. Creating living democracies
  6. Creating living cultures (264-265)

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The Corporation that Changed the World

15792820The answer to the implied question is, if you hadn’t guessed it, the East India Company. This is a great critical introduction to what the Company was, what it did, and how it relates to the corporate malfeasance we are so familiar with today.

Established on a cold New Year’s Eve, 1600, England’s East India Company is the mother of the modern corporation. In its more than two and a half centuries of existence, it bridged the mercantilist world of chartered monopolies and the industrial age of corporations accountable solely to shareholders. The Company’s establishment by royal charter, its monopoly of all trade between Britain and Asia and its semi-sovereign privileges to rule territories and raise armies certainly mark it out as a corporate institution from another time. Yet in its financing, structures of governance and business dynamics, the Company was undeniably modern (5).

Modern too, its insatiable greed and the split between this shareholder demand for profits and responsibility for any of the consequences.

From Roman times, Europe had always been Asia’s commercial supplicant, shipping out gold ad silver in return for spices, textiles and other luxury goods. European traders were attracted to the East for its wealth and sophistication at a time when the western economy was a fraction of the size of Asia’s. And for the first 150 years, the Company had to repeat this practice, as there was almost nothing that England could export that the East wanted to buy (7).

Essentially this is the story of how the East India Company forced this to change in search of profit. It is a harrowing story intertwined with English history in ways that this book doesn’t always tease out but bookmarks for us. For example, the literary figures who worked there, were surely influenced by their work even when not being explicit about it. Like Charles Lamb, Thomas Love Peacock, James and John Stuart Mill, James Bentham. On James Mill in particular there is this awesome anecdote:

One account describes how “when particularly inspired he used, before sitting down to his desk, to not only strip himself of his coat and waistcoat, but of his trousers, and so set to work, alternately striding up and down the room and writing at great speed.” (189)

This also connects to other histories of Empire, like one of those that fascinates me most — the evangelical project to settle Sierra Leone (read an early account here in relation to the Clapham Sect, another in relation to other trading companies here, and a later more fuller one here). I had as yet only ever heard of it as a way to resettle free Blacks from London to Africa, but here it is presented very briefly through the lens of the Lascars in London, noted because John Lemon, 29-year-old lascar and hairdresser and cook from Bengal married an Englishwoman named Elizabeth before they set off as part of the Sierra Leone expedition, surviving the passage but from there their future is unknown (21).

That is an aside however, a trail to follow. It’s almost a relief from the overwhelming anger and sadness this tale of greed inspires. Structural greed, as it’s three main flaws accoridng to Robins (and these remain unchanged today) are these, which lead to what can only be called villainy in the search for ‘immediate and excessive returns’:

  1. Executives and shareholders can pursue own profit to the detriment of all others — there is no higher purpose of the corporation.
  2. Limitation of liability frees shareholders and to a great extent executives of responsibility for their actions in the pursuit of these profits.
  3. The separation of ownership and control allows executives to pursue profit and exploit the company for their own ends.

Within this greater framework of greed and exploitation, individuals were also on the look out to make their own fortunes:

For its executives, the purpose of a career with the Company was to achieve a ‘competence’, making enough money to be able to retire and adopt the conspicuous consumption patterns of the British landed gentry. This could bot be achieved by saving from the salaries received from the Company, which barely covered living expenses. As a result, the ambitious Company man had to use his position a a platform for patronage and private trade (29).

What separated this form of corporation from the present one is primarily the risk and the power. Because the risks were, of course, much higher  — the round trip from India to London could take up to two years and there was limited communication or control possible. The East India Company also had to continually renew its royal charter, which required regularly justifying its existence outside of its investors at regular intervals.

On this other hand this royal charter allowed it to mint coin in oversees holdings, exercise justice, and the right to wage war — thus their army changed from private security to a tool for land acquisition. Robins quotes Niels Steengard as saying — ‘the principal export of the pre-industrial Europe to the rest of the world was violence.’ (44)

The history of the EIC is this its efforts to maximise its power, and to minimise risks and controls. Its impact on the monarchy was one example — after the Glorious Revolution brought William of Orange and Mary to the throne, commercial rights were high on the list of priorities in the minds of the British elite in drawing up the ‘unprecedented Bill of Rights that would bind the new monarchs’ (52).

This was matched by a long-standing and complex web of corruption and bribery in the interests of the company. Post 1688 it centered around the figure of Governor Sir Thomas Cooke, subject of a special inquiry. The sums are staggering for the time: £107, 013 paid out in ‘special services’, £80,468 to win a new charter. Another £90,000 used by Cooke to buy stock to shore up the chartering process.

A number of fortunes were made in autocratic bids to gain more power and profit — that of director Sir Josiah Child (‘Perhaps more than any other of the Company’s executives before or since, Josiah Child had demonstrated where an appetite for corporate power could lead’ (57)). The Pitt fortunes emerged, of course, from the ‘Pitt Diamond’, 410 carat rock obtained by Thomas Pitt, governor of Madras.

That would be another interesting distraction to follow. More inspiring perhaps, in terms of distractions, is the brief mention of a weavers’ insurrection in 1696, and their march on the East India House after 5,000 marched on Parliament against imports of Indian cloth. Later they ransacked and threatened homes of Company officials and very nearly sacked the Company storerooms. In view of what happens to weavers, you wish they had.

because we are about to come to the most horrifying period of the EIC’s fairly horrifying history. The period in which it caused Bengal to go from one of the richest areas in the world — hard to imagine today because it continues to be what the EIC made of it — one of the poorest.

The Battle of Plassey, 23 June 1757, is the turning point. Robert Clive attacked and defeated the nawab of Bengal, capturing Calcutta and thus ‘enabling the Company to achieve its long desired monopoly over the export trade, expanding into the internal market and appropriating the public revenues of Bengal for its own benefit’ (77).

One estimate states that in the decade after Plassey, Bengal lost 2/3 of revenues.

Bengal’s weavers were devastated — they were not rich but good evidence shows they lived and worked under much better standards of living than the weavers in England, with more control over their production terms and conditions. Any power they held over their labour was smashed. Their history says they cut off their own hands so they couldn’t be forced to work under the conditions demanded by the company. Rather than exporting cloth, Bengal began to export cotton and import cloth, devastating industry and all the lives that depended on it.

A new era of exploitation with impunity became the rule: ‘A new catchphrase entered the language — “a lass and a lakh [a lakh being Rs100,000] a day–to describe the lifestyle of the Company’s executives in Bengal’ (86).

They did not just devastate weaving, but all other systems of support and livelihood. When famine hit they continued exporting grain, and raised their taxes. I had not, until recently, even heard of this famine, this terrible murder of millions of people in 1770 (ish). Governor Warren Hastings  gave the number of 10 million, a third of the population of Bengal. A hundred years later, another famine:

Working in the midst of the terrible 1877 famine that he estimated had cost another 10 million lives, Cornelius Walford calculated that in the 120 years of British rule there had been 34 famines in India, compared with only 17 recorded famines in the entire previous two millenia (93).

Robins writes:

The Bengal Famine stands out as perhaps one of the worst examples of corporate mismanagement in history (97).

which seems to me to be a bit of an understatement, a bit missing the point perhaps. Besides, it depends how you define mismanagement, the point of  a corporation is to make a profit, and the EIC continued to make a profit through these years, difficult as they found it. This is the damning indictment of our times.

Robins then points out the ideological inconsistencies of corporations and their neoliberal supporters — but they are a bundle of inconsistencies. Still, it is good to remember:

Reading Smith afresh…it is shocking how his penetrating critique of the corporation has been so comprehensively suppressed. Nothing of his scepticism of corporations, their pursuit of monopoly and their faulty system of governance, enters into the speeches of today’s neo-liberal advocates. Promoting his vision of free trade, they conveniently ignore that this can only be achieved with steadfast curbs on corporate power (119).

And through all of it, there is a particular ridiculousness and in-fighting:

General John Clavering, Philip Francis and George Monson–arrived in Calcutta in October 1774, tensions arose. Instead of the 21-gun salute they were expecting, Hastings had organised only 17 cannon to fire as they landed (126).

There is the spectre of Edmund Burke arguing for the Indian people in the trial of Governor Warren Hastings — and I do love that he was brought to trial. I also appreciate this in Burke:

‘Rather than viewing history as a civilisational contest between primitive and progressive nations, Burke believed that each society had its own intrinsic value, which should not be sacrificed to the interests of profit or power (141)

But I haven’t even started on the account of China yet, the stealing of their secrets of tea production, the enforced opium trade through war and smuggling. And slowly the EIC was losing its corporate character, though none of its greed.

Military victory alone was insufficient to restore British fortunes in India. A new regime had to be introduced to confront the extreme oddities created by a sharehold-owned corporation ruling over tens of millions of people. The reforms of the 1770s and 1780s had punctured the Company’s autonomy as a business, and the 1784 India Act had introduced a two-tier system — a ‘double government’ — with the Company maintaining a facade of authority, behind which the state pulled the strings through the Board of Control (173).

If anything good can be said of them it was that they were entirely secular, but with the increased blending of public and private interests this was to change. Driven through by Wilberforce:

After years of campaigning, Wilberforce and others managed to include in the 1813 charter Act provisions for the establihsmnet of a Church of England bishopric in India, as well as the removal of the Company’s longstanding ban on missionary activity (182).

These changes solidified by the need for military force after the uprising of 1857:

When the company retook Kanpur…where rebel troops had slaughtered European women and children, captured sepoys were made to lick the blood from the floors before being hanged. Summary executions became the norm. According to one officer, “we hold court-martials on horseback, and every nigger we meet with we either string up or shoot.” The Company’s recapture of Delhi was followed by systematic sacking, and the surviving inhabitants were tured out of its gates to starve (195).

Robins later mentions the Company’s practice of blasting captured rebels from cannons as lampooned in a cartoon in Punch. Such caricatures only work utilising common knowledge, and it is not mocking the practice itself, rather the Company’s bungling and mismanagement and corruption. This is the brutal experience of conquest and Empire that goes unspoken by Colonel Pargiter in Virginia Woolf’s The Years. I wonder where else it lurks, all the places I never imagined from the ways in which history and literature are taught so as to hide it.

But thus we come to the end of the EIC as company, and onto India as part of the British Empire. Robins states:

The Company is often regarded as an inevitable stepping-stone to the British Raj. Instead, the British Empire in India is better thought of as the product of the Company’s failure (196).

A key inversion I think, but I am not sure what else I think about it, what it might mean for how Empire is both narrated and understood. I don’t know enough yet. I will ponder. By 1858 the Company is done, the Crown has negotiated a long process to buy out stock in a structured deal that makes sure no one loses money.

Given their record, that is quite disgusting. Given the way this deal was financed even more so. Surely the EIC was not quite the bungler it appears.

Writing in 1908, Romesh Chander Dutt was outraged at the way in which the people of India had not only supplied the troops for their own conquest, financed the Company’s acquisition of the subcontinent through heavy taxation, but had also paid for the Company’s nationalisation. “And the Indian people are virtually paying dividends to this day,” he wrote, “on the stock on an extinct Company in the shape of interest on Debt.” (198)

And the key lessons Robins would have us take away?

From this continual metamorphosis, four facets emerge most clearly for our times: the Company as entrepreneur, its role as a revolutionary force in world affairs, its tendency to imperial dominion and the struggle to make it accountable for its actions (201)

For me it is all this, but also the efforts to control the Company and call it to account, how Burke exposed the weakness of Marxism in its wholesale buying in of social evolution and the march of progress, the attempts at uprising both in England and India, and finding out about this marvelous creation that I shall have to go and see as soon as possible at the V&A:

2006ah4175_tipus_tiger

Their website describes it as:

‘Tipu’s Tiger’, a carved and lacquered wooden semi-automaton in the shape of a tiger mauling a man, Mysore, India, about 1793. Museum no 2545 (IS).

But the tiger is not just mauling any man. It is a European man, expressing the hatred of the EIC by the Sultan of Mysore, who fell in battle against them. This was part of the spoils, which is why I can go to the V&A and see it, as the EIC museum in Leadenhall Street is no more. I hate that it has been looted, yet it is a most visceral reminder of the simple fact that Empire was not appreciated, did not bring civilisation, did not help the Indian people.

I wonder if people see it that way? Just as I wonder what effect removing the statue to Robert Clive from Whitehall would be as Robins argues for — something I would definitely like to try and see. They certainly had an impact on the fabric of London itself — there is a nice section on that at the end of the book — or better said, how much of that impact has been erased. But the natural world was changed forever by the EIC both in India and its other colonies, the immense wealth of India funded the changing monumentality of country houses and gardens, the profit driven import/export business shaped the lives of the most desperate of London’s poor, particularly the weavers and the dockers. There is so much more to explore here…

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